Born on this day in 1887 Bernard Law Montgomery was a hero of two world wars.
Son of an Ulster-Scots Church of Ireland Reverend Minister from Inishowen in Donegal. Born in Surrey and grew up in Tasmania where his father was appointed as Bishop.
When he attended military college he was almost expelled for “rowdiness and violence”
He was already an adjutant in the British Army when WW1 broke out. He fought in the famous retreat from Mons and was shot in one lung. He recovered and returned to duty to fight again at Arras and Passchendaele. He finished the war with a rank of lieutenant colonel and it was in this capacity that he was caught in the photograph above in a prophetic juxtaposition with Winston Churchill.
He married Betty Carver in 1927, widow of an Olympic Athlete who died in WW1, mother of two sons. She had a moderating effect on Montgomery, smoothing out the negatives in his character, his violence, his intractability, his single mindedness. The qualities that made him a successful battle commander did not serve him well in the 20’s and 20’s. She helped him greatly to advance his peacetime career.
In a tragic set of circumstances she died of an infected insect bite that gave her blood poisoning and she died in his arms, leaving him grief stricken.
When WW2 commenced Montgomery immediately demonstrated his fitness as a battle commander. He retreated from France with his command intact, ordering a night time march to reach Dunkirk, and returning to Britain with minimal casualties.
His abrasive manner ruffled feathers at military command and he was openly and frankly critical of the command of the BEF. He had a reputation for physical and mental toughness and insisted on the physical fitness of all his men, including the senior officers. He was ruthless in sacking men he saw as unfit to command.
When Winston Churchill sought a commander to replace Auchinleck in North Africa he was convinced to select Montgomery. His transformation of the 8th Army and his defeat of Rommel at 2nd El Alamein are the stuff of legend.
From then on the march of Monty was the March of Britain. Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, until he tarnished the polish of his legend in Arnhem with that Bridge Too Far in Operation Market Garden. Had he succeeded Monty could have ended the war a year earlier. But perhaps not.
Peace time was not good for Montgomery with no understanding wife to iron out his worst tendencies. He upset many with his memoirs of the war and even faced legal challenges to what he wrote. He demonstrated himself as the worst kind of bigot with his stances on issues such as apartheid and homosexuality.
Montgomery: by A.P. Herbert
Field Marshal, few, and foolish, are the lands
that do not hail the baton in your hands.
They labelled you a ‘showman’. But we know
good showmen must have something good to show:
One does not capture by the showman’s art
the people’s confidence, the soldier’s heart.
They said you were ‘eccentric’. We could do
with several abnormalities like you:
It needs a not quite ordinary man
to start at Alamein and take Sedan.
Master of craft, and horror of the Huns,
one hundred salvos from a thousand guns!
September 3, 1944